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The Orchid Thiefby Susan Orlean
Reading Group Guide
1) Is there a hero in The Orchid Thief? An anti-hero?
2) Is the book subjective? Objective? Or a different genre altogether?
3) Some people describe this as "literary non-fiction." Is that how you would characterize it?
4) Susan Orlean resists the temptation to feel possessed by the orchids but she is willing to undergo great trials in order to satisfy her passion for reporting. Is this passion evident in her writing?
5) The passion for collecting is described in the book as a means of infusing meaning into life, subjecting the vicissitudes to some order, acquiring the ability to mold and change the nature of things, i.e. create life itself. What other means do humans employ to achieve the same ends, and how effective are they?
6) John Laroche would not describe himself as an orchid person. To him the orchid is a temporary albeit very intense passion, a means to an end, not an end in itself. How would you analyze the difference between Laroche's motives in collecting orchids and the regular orchid collectors we visit in the course of the book?
7) Laroche wrestles verbally with the thought that acting within what he considered the bounds of the law for his own immediate gain was ultimately an act of altruism. His rape of the Fakahatchee would force the law to be changed and close the loophole that allowed him to poach rare and wild orchids form an Indian reservation in the first place, thus protecting the species in the wild, and securing it for the marketplace at the same time. Is this the thought process of an amoral character? Or is he just an everyday charlatan? Discuss.
8) Laroche makes a very telling statement: "When I had my own nursery I sometimes felt like all the people swarming around were going to eat me alive. I felt like they were that gigantic parasitic plant and I was the dying host tree." Is Laroche playing the role of the victim, the martyr to a (preferably lost, but grand) cause or is he in control of his life by making a living off other people's weaknesses, whether it be a passion for orchids or pornography? Discuss.
9) Orlean seems fascinated by the story of Darwin and the study of the orchid with the eighteen inch nectary and the moth with the eighteen inch proboscis to feed on it: the idea that two totally different life forms evolved specifically to serve each other; that neither could have existed without the other. What has the evidence of the orchid's adaptability altered your perception of the theories of evolution?
10) Orlean interrupts her central narrative of John Laroche with stories of the orchid hunters of the past, the contemporary state for Florida and other histories. How does this affect the pace of the work?
11) Is the framework she has devised successful?
12) The Native Americans on the reservation are entitled by one law to remove protected species from their land. Is this law justified?
13) Orlean seems surprised by the abundance of sexual references to orchids in their book. Yet the flower is the prime sexual organ of most plants. Seek out a florist with a good representation of orchids. What alternative descriptions of these exotic flowers can you devise?
14) What is the real core, the central character, of the book: Laroche? Florida? Orchids? Native Americans? Darwin? Orlean?
15) As a reader, what did you expect from a book about orchids?
16) How did your experience for reading The Orchid Thief compare to what you expected?
17) The working title of The Orchid Thief was "Passion." What does that suggest about the themes in the book?
18) What, besides orchids, could generate a book like this?
19) Are there other subcultures or other objects of desire that might be as provocative?
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